Let’s talk about Pete Simpson’s cough.
Throughout his many chunks of dialogue in Is This A Room, Tina Satter’s new devised play at the Vineyard Theatre, Simpson keeps coughing. Or is it more of a throat-clear? Maybe a verbal tic? Whatever the exact nature of the noise Simpson keeps making, it lends a surprising vulnerability to his character – one altogether unexpected and strange, given the context.
Simpson is playing Special Agent Justin Garrick, one of two agents interrogating intelligence specialist and real-life whistleblower Reality Winner. Winner leaked classified documents which confirmed Russian interference in the 2016 election–documents she mailed anonymously to The Intercept. As the play begins, it is June 3rd 2017, and the FBI has arrived on Winner’s doorstep. The text follows, word-for-word, an FBI transcript of what transpired. As other agents search Winner’s home, Garrick and his partner Agent Taylor want to have a chat. It only slowly becomes evident, as the conversation progresses, that these agents already know the answers to most of their questions.
Agent Garrick’s vulnerability is part of what throws the play thrillingly off-balance. Garrick keeps coughing; he complains of allergies; he frequently stumbles on his words. After learning that Winner is fluent in four languages, he jokes that he “can barely manage English.” It’s hardly a joke – it seems to be true. Garrick struggles with straightforward conversation. And for the first third or so of the play, his unease is oddly calming. FBI agents – they’re just like us!
In Simpson’s precise, carefully calibrated work, it’s never clear how much of Garrick’s awkwardness is real and how much is tactical. As the weight of the evidence against Winner comes into focus, the tenor shifts, and Winner realizes this is not a friendly chat. Still Garrick’s strange, halting speech feels so very human. It couldn’t possibly be a ruse, just a strategy to extract a confession. Could it?
As the title suggests, Is This A Room looks to destabilize easy reads. Maybe Garrick really is that uncomfortable, but he’s also utilizing his discomfort to shake up Winner. Or maybe it’s all fake. If he doesn’t have Winner’s best interests at heart, at the very least he thinks that he does. He may really believe that Winner’s confession, which his gentle awkwardness helps to extract, is the best thing for her. “I think you just made a one time mistake,” he and his partner, Agent Taylor, keep repeating.
Satter and Davis do not let us forget that, in truth, Winner did not make a random error. Neither the ultimate impact of the leak, nor whether it was worth the cost to Winner, is ultimately explored here. But it is made apparent that Winner’s decision was not a careless one. Emotional, maybe – but the recognition of an injustice hits us as human beings before anything else. Winner’s leak may have lacked careful planning, but it came from a genuine desire to inform our larger conversation.
Which only makes this conversation, the one we’re seeing play out in front of us, all the more maddening. Winner’s wish to be understood – whether on the leak’s motivations, or simply on the location of her cat – is palpable, and Davis plays it with tragic open-heartedness. Her most moving moment comes near the close of the play when, as Winner explains that she will accept her punishment, she pronounces: “At this point, I’m not thinking about myself anymore, so.” In Davis’ reading we feel, so clearly, that Winner is herself only just realizing this as she says it.
Not every element of Satter’s production works. Garrick’s partner Taylor feels like a non-entity on stage. Despite TL Thompson’s fine work in the role, Taylor hovers on the edge of the action, never seeming involved. Meanwhile the function of Becca Blackwell’s ‘Unknown Male’ is lacking in context. I later learned Blackwell is channeling, in one shifting performance, several unidentified voices on the transcript – all listed as ‘Unknown Male.’ That’s a fascinating idea, but it was unclear to me in the moment.
That said, Satter has taken an ingenious concept and crafted a thrilling, thought-provoking work. By placing a terrifying political threat of our moment within such mundane reality, Satter only makes Winner’s story scarier. It’s not a far-off fight. It’s happening right next door. And that nice-seeming guy with the nervous cough? He’s not what he appears.